JERSEY CITY, N.J. — There are blowouts and then there is Secretariat’s 31-stride romp at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. There are blowouts and then there is Germany’s stunning 7-1 steamrolling of Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. There are blowouts and then there is the 1940 NFC Championship game — surely you remember that one! — when the Chicago Bears embarrassed the Washington Redskins, 73-0. The Bears kicked so many extra points into the grandstands that day that the game had to be finished with practice balls.
There are blowouts and then there is …
Listen, everyone knew this loaded U.S. squad would win the 12th Presidents Cup at the engineering marvel that is Liberty National. Everyone: Vegas. Chamblee. Your buddy Ralph in accounting. This was golf’s answer to the Dream Team, with DJ, JT and Jordan in the roles of Magic, Bird and, well, Jordan. “I don’t think there’s a bad pairing,” Rickie Fowler said as he took in the spectacle from the sidelines on Saturday afternoon. “You can mix and match however you want.”
Still, what has unfolded over three breezy days on the Jersey side of the Hudson hasn’t just been a convincing performance—it has been, with a nod to Tiger at Pebble in 2000, one of the most dominant and demoralizing drubbings you’ll ever see at this level of the game. With 12 points left up for grabs in Sunday’s singles matches, the U.S. holds an 11-point lead. You do the math.
Justin Thomas, celebrating after making a long birdie putt on the 14th hole Saturday, is a Presidents Cup rookie, but he certainly hasn’t played like it.
Chris Condon/PGA Tour
There will be no Brookline-like comeback tomorrow. No Miracle at Medinah. That ship has long since sailed—past Lady Liberty, under the Verrazano and deep into Atlantic never to be seen again. To claim its 10th Cup in 12 tries, the U.S. needs only a single point Sunday. One point. That means this thing will be over before many of Liberty’s members have finished off their eggs benedict. “You said they had to chip away at this,” Peter Jacobson said to Dan Hicks on the NBC telecast Saturday, “they’re going to need a sledgehammer.” Nah, more like a crate of dynamite, Jake, and even that might not be enough.
If the Internationals had any chance to make this contest even mildly interesting they needed to come out like a team possessed in Saturday-morning’s foursomes session. They didn’t. Nick Price sent out two of his stallions in the first group—Jason Day and Marc Leishman—but when Leish dunked his opening tee shot, it was an omen of more pain to come in their match against Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. The Aussies hung tough through the turn before the Americans closed them out with four straight birdies on Nos. 12-15. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t have it today—more so myself,” said Day, who would go on to lose another match in the afternoon, making his career Presidents Cup record a woeful 4-11-4. “It sucks.”
In the next two matches, Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson dusted Adam Hadwin and Adam Scott, while Kevin Kisner and Phil Mickelson picked off Emiliano Grillo and Jhonattan Vegas 2 and 1. The only morning match to reach the 18th hole was the last in the session, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler vs. Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen. JT was left with a five footer to halve the match. You know what happened next. Draino. Half point. Which increased the U.S. lead to a humiliating 11.5 to 2.5 heading into the afternoon four-ball session.
As the day progressed the temperatures dropped and the wind freshened — even the mighty-mite 134-yard par-3 10th, hard by Hudson, gave the players fits — but the Americans refused to relent. Spieth and Reed led off against Day and Oosthuizen and battled back from a 1-down deficit through 14 to win 2 and 1. Thomas and Daniel Berger looked as if they might lose their match after falling 3 down through four holes to Hideki Matsuyama and Johnattan Vegas. But, then, Thomas isn’t very good at losing. He and Berger came storming back — the highlight came at 14 where JT dropped a slippery 30-foot birdie bomb — to win 3 and 2.
Suddenly an awkward possibility — for the International team, for NBC, for the sponsors, and for the credibility of the event itself — became a very real possibility. If the U.S. could win the last two matches of the day, they would win the Cup, rendering the singles matches moot.
The raucous atmosphere around those two matches — Charley Hoffman-Kevin Chappell vs. S.W. Kim-Anirban Lahiri, and DJ-Brooks Koepka vs. Grace-Leishman — almost made you forget that the Americans had a touchdown-and-field-goal lead. The well-oiled galleries urged on the Americans as a swarm of players, captains, wives and girlfriends milled about the fairways and greens, readying to party—or, in the case of Fowler, JT and several other drink-toters, partying already. When bash brothers DJ and Koepka won the 15th to go 3 up, all eyes turned to Hoffman and Chappell’s decisive match, which stood all square through 15.
Enter Lahiri. A questionable captain’s pick who has struggled this season, Lahiri had taken it on the chin this week, losing 6 and 5 (with Charl Schwartzel) Friday, while having to sit out a hole for committing a careless rules gaffe. On the par-3 16th, though, he stuck a beautiful tee shot to 16 feet below the stick, then poured in the putt to win the hole and take his team 1 up. At the par-4 17th, Hoffman fired back by holing out a 65-foot birdie chip from a swale below the green that had his well-bundled teammates and their wives and girlfriends hugging and cheersing drinks back in the fairway.
Lahiri made a huge putt on the 17th, denying the U.S. an early victory.
Scott Halleran/PGA TOUR
Enter Lahiri again. This time he was above the hole, 20 feet away for a matching birdie that would ensure him and Kim at least a halve. Making the putt would also guarantee that the teams would have to play (at least some) meaningful golf Sunday. Mostly, though, it was a face-saving putt. Losing a four-day event on Day 3 is a scarlet letter that the Internationals would have worn for eternity. Lahiri holed it, then threw his putter to the ground as if to say, “See, world, I can play with these guys.”
When the teams halved the 18th with pars, Lahiri and Kim had picked up just the second win for the International team in 18 matches. Moral victory? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly meant something to Lahiri—and to his teammates, too. (When Lahiri and Kim walked into the team room Saturday night, they were greeted with a standing ovation.) Spieth, who had been following the match with the rest of the U.S. team for a couple of holes, made his way through the mass of players, officials and media on the 18th green to shake Lahiri’s hand.
“That was awesome, man,” Spieth said.
Lahiri grinned and said, “Just trying to be like you.”
A joyous bunch of International fans dressed in green and gold seemed not to care that their team would need a Biblical-grade miracle to claw back and win on Sunday. Instead they invoked Pearl Jam.
“We’rrrrrre … we’re still alivvvvve!” they boomed.
As Lahiri answered questions from a small pack of reporters, his wife Ipsa looked on from just off the green. She, too, refused to believe that the contest was over.
“Even if there’s a small chance tomorrow,” she said, “there’s still a chance.”
What has happened here this week is more than a fitting bookend on what has been a dominant season for U.S. golfers, who won three of the four majors—it is a referendum on the state of American golf. In a week that began with three former presidents gracing the 1st tee, it should be said that the state of American golf is strong. Insanely strong. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.
On Saturday night, captain Price was left to sort through the wreckage. With an impossible task facing his squad Sunday, he had few answers. “They are a tough, tough team,” Price said. “Five of us have racked our brains to try to change some of the pairings and see if we could mix it up a little bit, but it seems like everything we tried kind of backfired on us.”
Earlier in the evening Price had had a quiet word with Ernie Els, one of his assistants, who’s likely to be the captain in 2019 in Melbourne. Price’s message: “We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do the next time.'”
Best get cracking, boys.